Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not experience the same widespread protests that swept other Arab countries this year, officials at the federation of seven emirates have cracked down harshly on an attempt to question their absolute authority.
In April five pro-democracy activists were arrested after joining more than 130 leading academics, political activists and human-rights supporters in signing a March 9 online petition calling for a fully elected parliament and universal voting rights. In June, the men were charged under Article 176 of the emirates’ penal code, which makes it a crime punishable by up to five years imprisonment to publicly insult “the State President, its flag or national emblem.”
Six months later, they remain on trial on charges of incitement and insulting the UAE's rulers.
One of the accused, Nasir bin Ghayth, an economics professor at the Abu Dhabi branch of Paris’ Sorbonne University, served in the UAE air force and was a legal adviser for the armed forces. He was arrested along with blogger Ahmed Mansour, a member of Human Rights Watch's Middle East advisory committee, and online activists Fahad Salim Dalk, Hassan Ali Khamis and Ahmed Abdul Khaleq.
To protect itself from political upheaval, the emirates have announced new “benefits and handouts,” bin Ghayth wrote in an article posted on the blog www.darussalam.ae on April 11 — less than a week before his arrest. They are “assuming their citizens are not like other Arabs or other human beings, who see freedom as a need no less significant than other physical needs. No amount of security — or rather intimidation by security forces — or wealth, handouts or foreign support is capable of ensuring the stability of an unjust ruler.”
This fall, Human Rights Watch published a statement from bin Ghayth in which he says he and his fellow defendants have decided to boycott their trial. “I have reached an unshakeable conviction that this court, measured against international norms of justice, is merely a farce and facade meant to legitimize and make credible verdicts and penalties that may have already been decided. It is purely an attempt to punish me and those with me for our political opinions and our stances on certain national issues. Thus, I refuse to play the role written for me or to participate in this trial that does not rise to the standards of a fair trial.” The three-judge Federal Supreme Court panel hearing the case offers no right of appeal. The families of the men recently petitioned the court to drop the trial, writing that their loved ones have “suffered the bitterness of prison and the violation of their basic right to have a fair trial.”
Meanwhile, the government on Sept. 24 increased the number of UAE citizens permitted to vote in the country's second-ever election, which chose 20 members of the 40-member Federal National Council. The 20 other members are directly appointed to the council, which serves as an advisory board and has no legislative powers. Since the April arrests, the government has increased the number of eligible voters from about 7,000 in 2006 to 129,000, or 12 percent of the national population. No explanation was given as to how the voters were selected.
Some 28 percent of those eligible actually showed up at the polls on Election Day in September.
— Jennifer Koons